Corey Robin's "Reactionary Mind" and the Historicity of Mass Murder

An indifference to the Left's bloody history that amounts to a defense of the cruelest uses of power.

On February 7 I noticed an e-mail from Professor Robert T. Viscusi, a poet and professor of English, who heads Brooklyn College's Wolfe Institute.  The e-mail announced a discussion concerning Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin's book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.  As one of a handful of conservative faculty at Brooklyn College, I was concerned about these points in Viscusi's e-mail:

(Robin's book) weaves together how conservatism is a reaction against democratic challenges.  From the ideologies of Edmund Burke to Antonin Scalia, from John C. Calhoun to Ayn Rand, Robin illustrates how conservatives through history to present-day have defended power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality.

The claim that John C. Calhoun is linked philosophically to Ayn Rand is ill informed, and as a conservative I have never considered myself a defender of power.  Moreover, as one of a handful of conservative professors at Brooklyn College, I have witnessed ongoing ideological attacks by powerful leftwing ideologues against the few, powerless conservatives who have not been fired.

I exchanged e-mails with Professor Viscusi and Professor Samir Chopra, who is the discussion's facilitator.  As well, on the blog of the National Association of Scholars, I expressed my concern that disagreement with Robin's thesis that conservatives are ruthless defenders of power might result in ruthless charges of lack of collegiality against me.  Nevertheless, I decided to attend the colloquium and read Robin's book.

The Conservative Mind

Frontpagemag readers may recall Professor Corey Robin from his most famous student: terrorist Syed Hashmi.  Robin and Brooklyn College Professor Jeanne Theoharis have led a movement to support Hashmi, who admits to having assisted al Qaeda. Hashmi is serving 15 years in prison.   According to Phil Orenstein in Frontpagemag, Hashmi became radicalized while he was Robin's student.

There is an important link between Robin's sympathy for Hashmi, whose activities could have led to murder, and his book.  Conservatism in the tradition of Edmund Burke is a reaction to mass murder; Robin's book is a screed in favor of indifference to murder just as Robin has been indifferent to Hashmi's contribution to what could have been al Qaeda's victims' deaths.

Relying on stereotyped categorizations of victims and oppressors, Robin claims that conservatives resist movements that claim rights for the oppressed.  Robin does not count terrorists' victims as powerless or oppressed because they do not fit his comic book-like, two-dimensional world view.  The French Revolution, which Edmund Burke viewed with horror, involved not only regicide, but also the murder of between 18,000 and 40,000 people.  This, of course, pales in comparison to twentieth century examples of socialist mass murder.   Robin condemns Milton Friedman for assisting Pinochet, who was responsible for 3,000 deaths.  As well, he condemns Ayn Rand for failing to appreciate Bolshevism's supposed benefits such as access to education and movies.  The Bolshevik death toll that Robin seems to think should have been a matter of indifference to Rand was in the tens of millions.   Robin's claim that conservatism is a reaction against movements of the powerless is self-contradictory, for the 100 million victims of communism were powerless, and if the anti-communist movement is not conservative, then it is difficult to know what is.  It is Robin's indifference to the left's bloody history that amounts to defense of the cruelest uses of power.

Mark Lilla has written a review of Robin's book in The New York Review of Books, but his criticism of Robin as an über-lumper (for Robin lumps monarchists like Burke with democratic liberals like Ludwig von Mises) does not go far enough.  Robin's scholarship is weak.  He tends to rely on secondary sources, and he does not appear to grasp some of his primary sources.  Like most academics, he has no grasp of the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics led by von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek.  As well, he is unaware of von Mises's biography: The Nazis drove him from Austria.  Despite his status as a leading economist, he was refused a tenured job in America because he did not conform to the social democratic ideology that dominated universities in the 1950s.  More offensively, Robin calls both von Mises and Werner Sombart conservatives.  Sombart was the Nazi sympathizer who wrote the letter evicting Mises from the German Sociological Society because von Mises was a Jew.

Upon reading Robin's thesis that conservatism amounts to a defense of those in power, I immediately thought of Sombart, and sure enough, on page 35 he makes the implicit claim that Sombart was a conservative.  In fact, Sombart was the first Marxist academic.  In his book Value-Free Science?  Robert N. Procter outlines Sombart's career.  By the 1890s, when he was in his thirties, Sombart had introduced Marxism as a form of value-free analysis.  Friedrich Engels said that Sombart appreciated Marx better than any other academic.  By the 1920s Sombart's book on socialism had gone into its tenth edition.  But by the early 1900s Sombart's socialism had become increasingly nationalistic. In 1911 he attributed capitalism to Jewish usury.  Robin lumps Sombart with von Mises, a pro-capitalist Jew.

Equally puzzling is his association of National Socialism with Rand's, von Mises's, and von Hayek's liberalism.  Hitler said this in a speech on February 24, 1941:  "For we (sic), the poor, have abolished unemployment because we no longer pay homage to this madness, because we regard our entire economic existence as a production problem and no longer as a capitalistic problem." Could Hitler have conceivably been an ally of von Mises or Rand?  Robin claims so.  Robin's argument that Rand was sympathetic to the Nazis because she valued heroism is ridiculous.  Robin's work is not scholarship.  It is not even a caricature of scholarship.

The Colloquium

I attended the second session of the Wolfe Institute's Robin colloquium.  Besides Viscusi, Chopra, and their two graduate assistants, for half the discussion I was the only professor present.  I raised these points.  Viscusi was, in fact, sympathetic. I wonder how much of political correctness depends on simple misinformation.  Midway through the discussion, Professor Andrew Arlig joined us.  Arlig is one of the few other libertarians at Brooklyn College.  The discussion was collegial; nevertheless, Robin's book is an embarrassment to the Wolfe Institute and to the college.  The colloquium amounted to a whimper rather than a bang.

Mitchell Langbert is Associate Professor of Business at the Brooklyn College School of Business.

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